04 March 2018


Michaelia Cash has overreached herself in politics, and has nowhere to go but down.

After her comments about female staffers in Bill Shorten's office, Jane Caro and Jenna Price and many others have written about her betrayal of women in the workplace, particularly in environments (like Parliament) where women find it hard enough to make a contribution and be rewarded for it. Paddy Manning and Ben Eltham, among others, have written about how she sets low and worsening standards in public office. I broadly agree with what they've said and don't propose to reiterate or quibble, but to observe that a mediocre politician has bitten off more than she can chew and is suffocating helplessly before our eyes.

Cash vs the political class

Michaela Cash is unequivocally a creation of the political class. A lot of the anger directed at her has been from other members of that class amazed that anyone would shit in their own nest.

Cash's father was prominent WA state Liberal politician George Cash. Her entree to politics was in an unrelentingly blokey environment, one that would not tolerate quotas or adapt the environment even slightly to allow much space for women in non-traditional roles. She adapted to that environment and won a rare place in but also above Perth's elite, as a member of federal parliament.

Christian Porter is her brother-from-another-mother: his father was also a prominent WA state Liberal politician, they are about the same age, and in Perth's small elite they have fallen in and fallen out on their way to Canberra. He was spoken of in WA circles as a future Prime Minister, and she never was; part of that is sexism, but not all of it.

She entered the Senate in 2007 to replace Senator Ross Lightfoot, having worked on his staff and been his lover. It would be easy to write her off as some sort of kept woman, and both unfair and inaccurate; over more than a decade since entering the Senate in her own right, Cash has established a political career as significant as any who has made it to Cabinet. Yes, she's been stupid; but even a cursory look at Australian politics shows genius is hardly a prerequisite, and smarter people than her haven't gone nearly as far in politics. Yes, her behaviour has been appalling; but for all the piling-on she is still not the worst person to have entered politics. Yes, for all that we are still right to hope for better.

There will be political staffers, men and women, in Shorten's office and outside it (including in Cash's own office!), who take similar paths to hers toward high political office. Again, others have written what a betrayal Cash's snarl at Cameron was toward women, in a workplace that often assumes women take traditional roles or none at all. It is also a betrayal of Liberal women staffers, of women staffers outside the major parties, and other women who work in parliament (e.g. Hansard and press gallery journalists, cooks, cleaners, clerks, and security staff). Beyond that, it is a betrayal of the political class, people who have moved and who would move along a similar career path to her own: who the hell is Michaelia Cash to kick down the ladder up which they climbed/are climbing?

Long after this kerfuffle has blown off the front pages, there will be ministers and other high-level political-class operatives who burn with resentment that Michaelia Cash implied they were whores. Even those currently engaged in relationships not dissimilar to that between Cash and Lightfoot back in the day will resent that, and her.

Cash vs Shorten

Bill Shorten has been Opposition Leader for a longer continuous term than anyone in that office since Whitlam. He has survived the Heydon Royal Commission and the nihilistic treacheries of Victorian Labor, and other tribulations besides. This isn't sufficient proof that he'd be a great Prime Minister, or even that he'll necessarily make it to that office at all: but even rusted-on Coalition voters have to concede he's a survivor and a tough operator.

All ministers in this government bag Shorten personally and the opposition generally, it's standard political theatre. Cash has gone beyond Question Time answers and set-piece statements in her pursuit of "kill Bill". No other minister - not Joyce, not Morrison, not Dutton - has gone as far trying to knock over the main external threat to the incumbent government. The raid on AWU offices to discover its - and Shorten's - role in establishing GetUp! was her initiative, and its shortcomings can be sheeted back to her. Her ill-fated response to Doug Cameron's questions about her staff is also her own doing.

Sport is designed to teach you that if you play hard within the rules and spirit of the game, then if you win you'll have earned it, and if you don't you can have the quiet satisfaction of having done your best. If you play dirty, there's a taint over your victory and if you lose, you've lost face and everything really. This is where we find Cash today, sat on her arse in Losertown, and the last plane out of Sydney's almost gone (harmonica solo). She played tough and took on a big opponent - but she didn't win. There are no consolation prizes. Cash might be the hard-arse that Jenna Price says she is, but Shorten is harder.

A successful Prime Minister strolls on as Opposition Leaders fall by the wayside. Since Menzies, the only Prime Ministers not to be presented with the severed head of an Opposition Leader have been those we regard as generally less successful, beleaguered: Gorton, McMahon, Gillard, Abbott, and now Turnbull*. Howard saw five changes of Labor leadership when he was PM, Hawke 4 of the Liberals, Keating and Rudd 3 each. There would have been massive political cudos for Cash had she succeeded in knocking off Shorten, using the powers of her office and some inherent guile to expose ... er, something that might have caused Shorten to fall on his sword, or Labor to roll him. She'd be a giant-killer, a Person Not To Be Messed With, something like Barnaby Joyce was back a month or so. It hasn't panned out that way. Cash went in hard, playing for the big stakes, and has come off second-best. If Cash is forced out, the political credit goes not to Turnbull but to Labor, while Cash goes into history with her own boomerang embedded in her face.

"Kill Bill" has to be the dumbest political strategy since the creepy "Bathurst strategy" of the late 1990s in NSW politics, or Kevin Rudd playing silly buggers with both the Greens and the Liberals over emissions trading only to lose his own job. It is a demonstrable failure but it will not end. If Shorten does become Prime Minister, you can bet the Coalition in Opposition will plug away with the "kill Bill" playbook, and the press gallery will marvel at their cunning.

Cash vs the Business Council

The Business Council of Australia is not appropriately grateful for this government's policies in suppressing wages, and may even regard its triumph in this area as somewhat Pyrrhic. On becoming Liberal leader in 2009 Tony Abbott adopted their agenda wholesale, and both his successes and failures can be measured against this (rather than, say, any intrinsic beliefs he may have developed from his life experience, or the Vatican-line agenda on things like abortion and euthanasia). It has not reflected on either its successes or its failures, and has adopted the belligerence of its US counterparts in pushing for tax cuts and still more regulatory relaxation.

For all her bombast, Jennifer Westacott has less skin in the political game than the lowliest Coalition backbencher, who understandably flinches at the unrelenting pursuit of policies that do not appear to advance political or community interests.

Turnbull and Cash must mediate the relationship between the Coalition and the business community. The prime responsibility falls on Cash, and she isn't cutting it: she hasn't got the BCA to pull its horns in, and nor has she convinced the Coalition that promoting the BCA agenda will lead to political success (Morrison has done most of the heavy lifting in that area). A Liberal has to manage that relationship effectively: not being a doormat, but not standoffish either. Before 2009 political scientists could and did make the case that the Liberals were more than the puppets of big business, but Abbott had trashed that too and Turnbull hasn't got time to quibble.

Cash is the minister responsible for workplace relations and industry. These roles have not been combined since before World War II. It requires a vastly capable minister to be able to cover this field, especially as a Liberal: everyone in the Liberal Party fancies themselves as an expert on business-friendly policies (a bit like being Agriculture Minister in the Nationals, or workplace relations minister in a Labor government). As I said, Cash is no fool but she's not a vastly capable minister. Being snippy is simply not an adequate response to fair questions on her portfolio.

Cash vs the press gallery

Chris Uhlmann is about as close to this government as it is reasonable for a press gallery member to get. The fact that he's in trouble for photographing Cash's phone is stupid, and shows that both the formal rules for press gallery engagement and the informal understandings and relationships serve to produce neither good journalism, compelling content, nor a public that is well-informed after having consumed that content.

Blocking media coverage of her entering a room in parliament was pathetic, the sort of thing an under-siege minister might scream for but which an experienced staff should realise was always counterproductive. Female journalists may well feel let down by Cash's recent efforts, if not some solidarity with Shorten's maligned female staff. The smarter ones can smell death on her too. All those press gallery members who've worked so hard to build relationships with her must wonder why they bothered, and what future those relationships may have.

The press gallery gave a free pass to Tony Abbott in his criticism of Cash. Be in no doubt that had Abbott remained as Prime Minister (and assuming he'd put Cash into Cabinet), he would have backed her more forcefully than Turnbull did. He'd have brought all of his renowned sensitivity toward women's issues that is now overlooked by experienced press gallery operators. I know Cash stuffed up, but she should not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man either. It's like the gallery forgot all about Abbott, and yet again gave him the coverage he only ever wanted: to have his words taken at face value, on the day and in the context in which he said them.

The Cash-less society

Nobody in the business community is impressed by someone who picked a death-match with a man who is clearly not dead. The business community has to do bipartisanship because its plans go beyond the news cycles or even the three-year electoral cycles, and Michaelia Cash is not a long-term player in frontbench politics. Her credibility is shot. She might make a useful lobbyist in a few years. The Prime Minister's pride is such that he will not pole-axe her straight away (she failed not by departing from his agenda, but by being zealous if imprudent in pursuing it). He isn't exactly overwhelmed with alternatives, or Cash would be gone by now. Sending her to an ambassadorial position so soon after Brandis would cement the idea that his government is on the way down, and that capable operators should not rally to its support but take to the lifeboats.

There will be no big initiatives developed, announced, and seen through by this minister, not in her current portfolio nor any other. If the Coalition loses the next election the next Liberal Opposition Leader might well call on former ministers to help return them to office, but Cash will not be one of them. Michaelia Cash is finished.

* I didn't count McEwen because his was a caretaker role while the leadership of the Liberal Party, not Labor, was being resolved. Parliament did not sit while he was PM, he cannot be said to have failed to knock off the Opposition Leader (Whitlam) when there was no proof he was trying to do so and when his limited term was so focused on other matters. As for Turnbull, it's true that his Prime Ministership hasn't ended but as of today that statement holds.